By Rebeca Piccardo
Yolanda Martinez Fuentes, 77, propped up a mannequin wearing a dress made from a couple of chiffon scarves that were sewn together. With pins, she laid out a halter strap as a finishing touch.
“This is my therapy,” said Martinez Fuentes, who prides herself on her ability to make anything with a needle and thread. “I think I’ll be at the sewing machine until the last day of my life.”
Since Martinez Fuentes learned to sew when she was 14, she has worked as a seamstress, creating clothing patterns from scratch. She used her skills in many places, including El Encanto department store in Cuba and a factory in Miami.
As a retiree, Martinez Fuentes has continued sewing in the same house where she has lived for almost 50 years.
In her home, Martinez Fuentes has a sewing room with drawers full of different colored threads, a sewing machine and a steam press. By word of mouth, she has maintained a loyal clientele and has made clothes for weddings, quinceaneras, drama productions, and school and cheerleading uniforms.
Amy Cao, owner of Vicky Bakery, met Martinez Fuentes through a mutual friend about 20 years ago. She was looking for a seamstress to make a dress for her oldest daughter, Victoria, for her fifth birthday party.
Martinez Fuentes continued mending clothes for Cao’s children, watching them grow up. She even made a taffeta dress for Victoria’s high school homecoming dance.
“She’s become part of the family,” Cao said. “I talk to her at least twice a week, and we’ve been a part of all her celebrations. We made her a cake in the shape of a sewing machine for her 70th birthday.”
Now, she spends more time doing alterations.
“Clothes today are poorly made,” she said. When doing alterations, she often takes the piece of clothing apart and sews them back together.
Her daughter, Bridget Brea, admires her mother’s passion for a skill that has become rare.
“She could have been anything she wanted to. She could have been Oscar de la Renta,” Brea said. “This is a dying trade. There’s nobody that does this.”
Martinez Fuentes, spends most of her time in her sewing room, making small, quick fixes to clothes while her friends, children and grandchildren visit her throughout the week.
“I never aspired to be a designer or anything,” she said. “I wouldn’t have wanted riches or fame, because I would have never appreciated what I have. I’ve had a wonderful life and made my children proud.”